The City of Santa Monica has strengthened its far-reaching smoking ban.

At a City Council meeting earlier this month, the council approved changes to current smoking legislation to make restaurant owners and managers liable for knowingly or intentionally allowing smoking in outdoor dining areas. The revised ordinance also prohibits smoking on all of the city’s library grounds.

At the same meeting, the council directed city staff to return with an ordinance prohibiting smoking in common areas of multi-unit residential buildings.

The city will also explore a variety of other issues involving housing and hold public workshops with input from the Rent Control Board and the Housing Commission, where anyone may express their smoking-related concerns.

“It’s a great beginning,” said Esther Schiller, executive director of Smokefree Air For Everyone (SAFE), who believes “more will come” to protect residents from secondhand smoke in the future.

The City Council had directed city staff in December to draft the ordinance adopted this month and also requested information on anti-smoking legislation in other California cities in several areas.

Among those who spoke at the council meeting in support of strengthening the smoking ban and looking into the issue of protecting multi-unit housing residents from second-hand smoke were representatives from the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the California Clean Air Project, Fresh Air Santa Monica and the Smokefree Apartment House Registry, as well as concerned residents.

“We have lots of rules that city residents must follow to keep peace with the neighbors,” said William McCarthy, associate professor of public health at UCLA. “Now that more and more Americans are living in multi-unit housing, sharing walls and air ducts with neighbors, I think it’s appropriate to make additional rules now to protect neighbors from cancer-causing smoke. All Americans should have the right to smoke-free living.”

Schiller agrees.

“We have discovered that even when windows and doors are closed, smoke still finds its way in [to other housing units] because our buildings are not built like spaceships,” says Schiller. “They’re not built to keep out the smoke. If smoke is drifting into your unit, there’s nothing you can do except move — and the same thing can happen again [after you move]. We’re trying to find a reasonable solution.”

But some, including Mayor Herb Katz, expressed concerns about encroaching on people’s living spaces.

“I have one concern and that is, when we start to go into people’s private living quarters, where do we stop?” said Katz, who quit smoking 28 years ago. “I think we’ve got to be very careful before we start stepping on people’s private rights and that’s what we’re starting to do.

“If I want to go in my house, shut the door and smoke, I think that’s my business. I think we have to be extremely careful.”

Councilman Kevin McKeown said he understood that the issue was a sensitive one, especially when “we’re talking about what people are doing in what’s perceived to be in the privacy of their own home.”

But McKeown noted, “I think we’re at a point in history where the reality of the impact of secondhand smoke is just undeniable. I think we now have to look at what we’re doing in the future in Santa Monica based on health.”

And there is no denying that secondhand smoke is unhealthy for all.

In 2006, Surgeon General Richard Carmona stated in his annual report that secondhand smoke is a health hazard and that scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

However, Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom thought that directing city staff to return with an ordinance prohibiting smoking in common areas of multi-residential buildings was a “pretty big step.”

“I think there’s a lot of concern in how we move in this particular arena,” Bloom said. “Let’s get people comfortable with the idea that there can be non-smoking areas in these buildings. I’m not sure what the future might bring, but I think this is a place to start.”

Bill Dawson, vice president of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles and a property manager in Santa Monica, encouraged the City Council to proceed with “caution and thoughtfulness.”

“The path is full of landmines,” he said. “This is a very difficult issue that impacts many people’s lives in a very negative way and I feel something does need to be done. This is all still really new. I’m just urging caution.”

At the meeting, the City Council also directed staff to prepare and return with an ordinance on tobacco retailer licensing and a resolution encouraging the city’s pharmacies not to sell tobacco products.

The ordinance strengthening the city’s smoking ban by making restaurant owners and managers responsible for knowingly or intentionally allowing smoking in outdoor dining areas will not go into effect until 90 days after the council approves it at a its second reading on April 22nd, which is standard procedure.

The ordinance will include an outreach and marketing campaign — and businesses will be required to have signage at outdoor dining areas that is sufficient to instruct all diners about the law.

“Signs are widely regarded as a big help in increasing public awareness and making enforcement easier,” said deputy city attorney Adam Radinsky.

Of the three Los Angeles-area cities that have made business owners liable in this area, all require signage, including Calabasas and Burbank.

Under the ordinance, fines for violations were also reduced from $250 to $100 for first violations — putting Santa Monica more in line with other cities in Southern California.

The city had received complaints that the $250 fine was “disproportionately high.”

“Frankly, staff believes $250 is just too high, especially when you add in the mandatory penalty assessments that the court imposes, so you get up over $900 when you add in all the fines,” said Radinsky.

Even with $100 as the base fine — which is still relatively high for an infraction — with mandatory penalty assessments, the total fee will come to $380, Radinsky said.

Currently, smoking is prohibited on the Third Street Promenade and in all farmers markets, all outdoor dining areas and outdoor service areas, such as bus stops, ATM lines and movie theater lines, and within 20 feet of entrances, exits or open windows of buildings open to the public.

It is also prohibited in the city’s public parks and on its beaches.